NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ryan Suter’s now in Minnesota and Jordin Tootoo is in Detroit. The Nashville Predators still have captain Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, and their goals remain unchanged.
Stanley Cup or bust.
“We’ve shown ourselves that we can play against anybody,” Rinne said. “And for sure it’s going to be a tight schedule, quick season and you have to be ready from the beginning. And for sure, we’re going to battle for the Cup.”
The Predators open Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets looking for their eighth playoff berth in nine seasons, but expectations couldn’t be higher after falling short in the Western Conference semifinals each of the past two years.
Nashville fell short last season despite a handful of moves that included trading for defenceman Hal Gill and sending their 2012 first-round draft pick to Buffalo for Paul Gaustad. They even welcomed back Alexander Radulov four years after he bolted home to Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League, moves that helped them finish with the No. 4 seed in the West and 104 points—the third-most in franchise history.
The Predators ousted Detroit in the opening round, then lost in the Western Conference semifinals a second straight year with the latest in five games to Phoenix.
That set up a turbulent off-season as Suter, the defenceman who averaged a team-best of 26 minutes, 30 seconds of ice team per game, left as a free agent for a 13-year deal in Minnesota. Tootoo, the scrappy forward, signed with Central Division rival Detroit, and the Predators happily watched Radulov head back to Russia after he was suspended for staying out too late during the series with Phoenix.
They took big steps toward keeping the core together by re-signing forwards Mike Fisher, Sergei Kostitsyn, Colin Wilson and Gaustad to multi-year deals. They also brought back defencemen Hal Gill and Kevin Klein while signing veteran defenceman Scott Hannan. They brought back Chris Mason, a former Nashville goalie, to back up Rinne.
The biggest move came when Nashville matched Philadelphia’s 14-year, $110 million offer sheet to Weber in the biggest deal ever handed out by this small market team. That keeps him around with Rinne, who signed a seven-year, $49 million extension himself in November 2011 as the cornerstones for this franchise for years to come.
Now that they face a 48-game season shortened by the lockout, the Predators believe they have an advantage with a team that has changed so little.
“Scott Hannan’s the only guy who’s never put on a Nashville Predators’ jersey,” said coach Barry Trotz, heading into his 14th season. “I’m telling everybody it’s benefiting us. So I think in terms of our process of how we have to play, how we have to do things, what our responsibilities are, those will probably come back a little quickly hopefully for us.”
The schedule has Nashville playing Central Division rivals Columbus and Chicago five times with only four games each against Detroit and St. Louis. They also host St. Louis on Monday before hitting the road for two weeks and a seven-game road trip that will be their longest. The men’s Southeastern Conference tournament also sends them on the road in March, and they wrap up the season April 27 at Columbus.
Nashville builds through the draft, and the Predators are counting on 22-year-old Roman Josi to replace Suter as Weber’s defensive lineman. They also need Wilson, Matt Halischuk, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and Craig Smith to improve on what they did last season.
What the Predators will find out is how much not having Suter affects the NHL’s best power play unit and the 10th-best penalty kill percentage team last season. The Predators also ranked eighth in goals scored per game (2.83) and tied for eighth in goals against average (2.50), but Rinne isn’t worried. He led the league with 43 wins last season facing the most shots in the NHL with a .923 save percentage.
“Obviously, they have big shoes to fill, but Josi’s ready for that and he’s played really well last year,” Rinne said. “Other than that we have Scott Hannan as a new guy. Other than that, everybody’s kind of the same people … I think it’s a very comfortable situation and everybody knows it.”
Nashville is one of only five NHL teams to reach the post-season seven of the last eight seasons. Extending that will be the first step toward trying to make a run at a title in this shortened season.
“You’re going to have to have a little bit of luck,” Trotz said.
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker